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Good luck skipping the Olympics on TV

It’s hard not to fall prey to the Olympics’ massive pull. And this year, it’s proving harder than ever to resist. The TV coverage is a socio-cultural, political, capitalistic and — oh, by the way — sports lollapalooza packaged for the screen as heart-and-soul melodrama.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For weeks it had been building, the pressure that comes over you every two years — alternately in the winter, then the summer — to drop what you’re doing and watch the Olympics.

The demands placed upon you are enormous, especially this summer by NBC Universal, which shelled out $900 million for exclusive American broadcast rights to cover the Beijing Olympics, and wants a hefty audience for it. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft).

Multitudes are heeding the call. For starters, an average of 34.2 million Americans caught the telecast of Friday’s opening spectacular.

But at the same time, roughly 270 million others took a pass. How in the world could so many have refused? And what were they doing instead? Getting a jump on sending out their Christmas cards?

By Sunday, when swimming superstar Michael Phelps (the reigning star of “America’s Got Talent: Olympic Edition”) won, with his U.S. teammates, his second-and-counting gold medal of the Beijing Games, NBCU was claiming 143 million total viewers in the first three days.

It’s hard not to fall prey to the Olympics’ massive pull. And this year, it’s proving harder than ever to resist. Because there’s so much more to resist. Some 3,600 hours of this VideOlympiad are available through NBCU’s broadcast, cable and Web outlets (plus, in certain hot spots, through the fillings in your teeth).

You’re dazzled by 100 sports announcers; nearly 1,100 high-definition cameras; the one and only Michael Phelps.

With all that to offer and more (NBCU bills it as “the most ambitious single media project in history”), this isn’t just a field day of global proportions. It’s a socio-cultural, political, capitalistic and — oh, by the way — sports lollapalooza packaged for the screen as heart-and-soul melodrama.

Already you may have been tempted to take a peek. And how in good conscience could you decline, when NBCU has gone to the bother and expense of such Olympian abundance, much of it live, lots on-demand? You’ve been seeing the promotions seemingly since the last Olympic torch was doused, and you’ve been exposed to the Olympic rings burned into the corner of your screen for every NBC show. By this point, they’re also burned into your corneas, along with the peacock. NBC knows a little something about programming. Chances are: You’ve been programmed.

Now one peek at the Olympics can lead to another. You sample a little table tennis, then you’re glomming onto the pentathletes (like you ever paid attention to the modern pentathlon before!) on your way to streaming coverage around the clock.

It’s not too late to stop the madness.

Of course, if you try to confine yourself to non-Olympics TV, you may find your options limited. Few channels are brash enough to mount a full-frontal challenge to NBCU with fresh, competitive programming. “Law & Order” reruns play on.

Meanwhile, you can expect to pay a price for your Olympic abstinence.

For the next week or so, you may have nothing to talk about with people you meet. (Though you can fake it with something safe like, “That Michael Phelps is amazing, isn’t he!”)

You may also find that, with all those hours not otherwise consumed by watching the Olympics, you instead contemplate the Olympics, along with its many contradictions. For instance, how the Olympics remains insistently above politics yet intertwined with politics; how it promotes global harmony while inflaming nationalism, however much those values seem at odds.

Host country China has its own contradictions. With breathtaking venues but smoggy air to breathe, it’s open to world commerce and an image makeover, not so open to journalists or human rights.

There’s a gnawing possibility that, despite the lock-down exercise in vigilance, the Beijing Olympics could be the arena for news no one wants to see and everyone would watch with sorrow: violent protest or an act of terrorism.

But barring that, for 2½ weeks the stories of this VideOlympiad should continue to unfold according to the orderly game plan: Winners emerge while their rivals fall short, all in the name of patriotism and one-world harmony.

That means you Americans who opt out risk the shame of shirking your duty to cheer on your country’s athletes from your living rooms. You also betray homegrown, globe-spanning brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, proud sponsors that have generously sprung for a piece of the action.

So here’s to going for the gold and the Golden Arches! By now it should be obvious: To shun the VideOlympiad is tantamount to spitting on the flag — and a Happy Meal, too.